Ok, so Peter Jackson (director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy) has grit, panache and technical brilliance on par with Robert Zemeckis (who incidentally produced Mr. Jackson’s American debut, The Frighteners). He pushed The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), a difficult visual spectacle to make in the first place, into cinematic existence regardless of perilous financial consequences – and in turn, singlehandedly boosted New Zealand’s cinema-economy a notch or ten.
Now, in revisiting The Hobbit, an LOTR prelude with a stereotypical premise of killing a mean and nasty dragon, his tech genius may have gone overboard. While I do not have issues with The Hobbit’s dilated three movie breakup (the source material is 278 pages by the way), or its first part’s leisurely running time (which LOTR movie is less than three hours, I ask you?), my only beef is with two of the film’s technical calls.
Shot on digital, with a healthy quota of Red Epics, all set to capture at 48 frames a second, the visual quality (which I can only estimate, because we won’t be seeing it in 48 fps), will be distractingly real. Ultra Hi-Def, crisp and annoyingly real; details, warranted or otherwise, would spring into focus, and their fidelity would be visually jarring.
Change is good, but only when it doesn’t wreck foundations. Cinema has trained our eyes to familiarise movement of 24 frames as cinematic. Let’s just stick with that for the moment and not turn everything into a videogame or an HDTV experience, shall we?
With this little snag out of the way, let me tell you, the aggregate number The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has at Metacritic is pure codswallop.
Grand in parts, Mr. Jackson’s reverent attention to detail, character build-up and cinematic pump-ups are stark-maddening. Yes, this is a positive review, but only because An Unexpected Journey warrants it.
With the LOTR trilogy, Mr. Jackson had to adapt an already self-zealous material into a product of equal cinematic ostentatiousness. Nitpicking and adapting elements served their purposes and ultimately bagged 17 Oscars and 2.9 billion at the box-office. That was then, but as history tells us, Oscars and box office make a deadly combination.
Nine years later, with The Hobbit, and An Unexpected Journey, Mr. Jackson has autonomy to play around. Creative decisions amalgamate with veneration, as new faces or old references spring-up with uncanny timing in the most naturalistic of fashions. The resulting splendour is still as enthralling as Howard Shore’s returning score. And it works only because the adventure, by itself, is of a more orthodox nature.
As I said before, An Unexpected Journey is a revisit to preluding Middle Earth grounds. Bilbo Baggins, the yarn-weaver and chronicler played by Ian Holmes in the first trilogy (and briefly at the beginning of this movie), is 60 years younger. Back then, we see that he has a Frodo-esque all-embracing quality to him.
But these are the olden days. The pastures of Shire and the native hobbit village are greener and there are no demonic horse riders or glowering retinas near Mount Doom (that will come later).
The chief danger in The Hobbit is Smaug, a ruthless dragon that crippled the Dwarf kingdom’s gold-ridden home and took residence. Aimless and defeated, years later, a variegated band of 13 gather at Bilbo’s residence with Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan back in a drag that has never seen a washing machine), and Bilbo is emotionally conned into an adventure.
There are other dangers though: Angry rock giants, triple-sized trolls, gruff orcs and man-eating wolves who look like recasts from the last Twilight movie; yes a lot of things in Middle Earth need anger management and people skills. Still, these are the least of the lot’s worries.
Politics, group affiliation and indifferences spring up, but only for a scene or two. Galadriel, Saruman and Elrond (Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee and Hugo Weaving) – and in an expertly weaved in prologue, Frodo (Elijah Wood) – serve dual purposes: One, of establishing roots, and two, of educing fanboy giddiness (well, mostly fanboy giddiness).
Even though these additions strengthen An Unexpected Journey’s bonds with the LOTR movies, it is the screenplay by Mr. Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and one-time director candidate Guillermo del Toro that commands rapt attention.
Spectacles happen, at times concurrently. Wailing action sequences are impeded by sound effects, sweeping music or screaming war cries by creatures of motion capture and computer generated pixels (the breezing camera work is again by two time LOTR Oscar winner Andrew Lesnie).
But then again, this is routine for cinema because computer generated horrors and myths tend to happen on-screen more often than good human drama.
With Mr. Jackson, the upshot may look slightly bloated, but it is never yawn inducing. Almost every predicament, leading to the intense pre-finale riddle game with Gollum (Andy Serkis, excellently picking up his Oscar-worthy performance laid out in LOTR), is right on the money.
As a younger Bilbo, Martin Freeman is an apt replacement for Frodo. And while he doesn’t have a Sam Gamgee-like associate taking his back, (and that some of the Dwarfs don’t get moments to flash their characters just yet), his strenuous relationship with Thorin (Richard Armitage), makes for a different yet substantial substitute.
Although it is difficult to imagine Dwarfs as characters of kingly majesty and authority (as excellently typicalised by John Rhys-Davies’ Gimli), Mr. Armitage’s war-torn king-in-making and his emotional baggage, have no problem being a proxy for Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn.
Thorin’s quest may be of a lower-scale than Aragorn’s, but the only disadvantage I see working against Mr. Jackson is the allure of championing what is cinematically unexplored – and that too in vivid 3D.
Middle Earth works quite well without a live television-esque sheen, Mr. Jackson. I think you, of all people, should know that.
Released by Newline Cinema, MGM, Warner Bros. and Geo Films, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is rated PG-13. Dozens of fantasy digital creatures die without blood-loss; then again, who’d want to stay in the way of an angry Dwarf in the first place.